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Infants » Discipline and Guidance

Lessons From Infancy

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nreborn and grandmaBy reviewing research on infants' actions, professionals and parents can now discover important clues and how to guide them and nurture them.

In the recent past, psychologist and parent educators have attempted to help parents better understand their children's development by focusing on parent and child behavior. Books with titles about assertive discipline, cooperative and behavioral management of children and stress are responding to parents' very real need to solve day-to-day child-rearing and lifestyle problems, while facing diverse lifestyle and societal changes that are altering every parent's idea of raising their children the way they were raised.

Today's parents do not necessarily want to imitate their own mothers and fathers, and other relatives. Today, marriages frequently cut across ethnic, racial or religious lines, and may not fit with the other generation's traditional view of a family (most do not), or yours may be a blended, merged or unusual family lifestyle! Then, remembering how your parents disciplined you may not bring back fond memories of the "good old days".

Child abuse research has long shown that children grow up to repeat the same forms of discipline that were demonstrated to them. By analyzing baby albums, pictures on the walls, and scrapbooks, researchers visit families to find clues about how babies need to be cared for and disciplined. Families chronicle infants, as they develop and grow, providing pictures and fascinating bits of data, such as "she slept through the night at 2 weeks and was toilet trained at one year". Thus, the first lesson from infancy is that we were all infants once, and having survived the experience, parents can develop a sensitivity and concern for infants that allows us to treat babies as competent and capable right from birth.

There are not many life experiences that can be considered universal, yet all of us did, in fact, go through the birth process, progress through infancy and childhood. These "beginning" experiences are not considered to be valuable sources of information for anyone who works with children.

Infancy has for centuries been an over generalized, passive period of time. No one whispered, in order to let babies sleep. Later in the 50's, hospitals concluded "noise does not bother babies". Lights were always on and infants were lugged from place to place at the will of others.

Researches in earlier century, described infants as "passive blobs", existing, as Charles Darwin wrote, in a world of "bussing confusion". Later, children were studied by Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, Erik Erikson and others, in the context of what was known about the minds and behaviors of adults and interpreted, even adapted to child behaviors.

Even later, prospective knowledge about infancy, enabled a bottoms-up, from-the-beginning approach to emerge that points out ways the fetus begins in the womb to provide his/her own development.

As unique and diverse individuals go, babies are definitely not all alike. Some infants are easy babies, some difficult to soothe chronic criers. They give clear signs about their personalities and temperamental traits in the first weeks of life. I have known newborns who refused to look at anything, but who listened to noises and voices with such intensity that they appeared to be in a state of total concentration. Infants are constantly moving, even when sleeping. 

Research on infants reared at home and in quality child care settings has created a major shift form an adult-centered perspective to one demonstrating that babies are competent and active organizers who are able to regulate their own behavior in the first few months of life. Researchers observe and measure infants' thoughts and preferences (they like human faces and people better than play objects) until they are 4-5 months (infants stay calm when their body position is changed often, they pay attention to objects that are more similar than different, and they "sort" objects by gazing at 8 or 9 months. Babies hold things as if they are permanently attached to their fingers. These revelations show that infants possess both innate abilities (such as vocalization, bodily reactions, and actions) and gradually acquired skills that come from experience with people, places and things but people come first.

It is still remarkable to me to watch a seven week old infant imitate facial expressions (puckering my lips, sticking out my tongue) use throaty cooing sounds and gaze alternately at the ceiling lights - all at one time.

All young children, including infants, can do several things at once. Brain development frontal lobes allow this to happen. They mix and match different senses (movement, sight, hearing, touch, and smell/taste) learning naturally in their own environments than from being taught by the one-step-at-a-time or do-as-I-say adult thinking method.

Children think differently than adults because they think this multisensory mix and match way. Parents can become less bossy and verbally direct helping children have experiences as problem solvers, writers and early readers. They can guide their children's behavior, teach them new things, give directions and mandate rules utilizing the different forms of thinking.

Concrete thinkers and child-like adults can be the best factors. Marcy is a three-year old, does not sit still for even 10 seconds to hear a story or eat lunch and does not listen when someone, especially her parents try to reason with her. Mom and dad decide, after reading this article, to help her practice skills. They move and arrange chairs, get a book and hold it while Marcy holds another. They let Marcy help fix lunch, telling her she has a choice of two foods, one plate to eat at the same time she can listen to a story, hugging her, saying that it feels warm and cozy to sit close and listen, while eating lunch. All this is done by Marcy's parents virtually at the same time, simultaneously, because they recognize that if Marcy doesn't get the message one way, for example, verbally, she will get the message another way, through touching or tasting or helping.

What happens if parents do not "get the multi-sensory message" ? My experience is that most parents do not listen to children's requests for help, frequently or significantly, with the predictable result that overprotected kids learn to whine, to become defiant and to act helpless, even over the littlest things, like carrying their own toys or hanging up clothes. If there is any doubt, learn this lesson first-hand from observing at a quality infant day care program, where even crawling or cruising (the holding onto furniture stage) 9 month-olds follow after their caregivers, helping them take play objects from shelves, using the "toys", and putting them away, at the same time they are singing a song or playing peek-a-boo.

The second lesson from infancy is closely related to the first: there is no one way to learn how to do a specific task, and there is no one right way. It is a matter of taste, individual preference, acquired habits, and prompts children get from people, places, and things around them.

Parents should try to be flexible and offer their children different strategies for everything from reading letters and words to working in a garden, sewing, or feeding the dog. Show children there is no one way to make a bed or a birdhouse or pack a suitcase. Allow children to do it their way, even if it means re-doing a task over again. So what is the harm? The excellent benefit may be that these children learn early not to be afraid of making a mistake and will refuse to be defeated by a problem that they cannot solve the very first time.

In my work with maltreated and chronically deprived school-age children, I usually encounter children who shrug, say, "I can't", or refuse academic tasks which are presented for the first time or which require an educated guess. They are truly afraid to make a mistake, to estimate or use information they already know. These children are afraid to tell me what they know. The reason? They are getting one-way-thinking messages. Maybe it is because the adults in their life, even their teachers, think that way!

Ruth's teacher walks over to her: "That is not the way to write a capital A". I have told you several times, James, to do your bell work without saying a word to anyone. Class, everything must be off your desks and you must be sitting still, looking at me, before I will start to read. These illustrations show one-dimensional and non-multisensory teaching strategies that do not work with many children. Yet, teachers and parents routinely tell me, "I can only teach (be a parent) the way I was taught". My reply, "So, when was that?"

Unless these teachers or parents are child brides or grooms under the age of seven, this is the 90's and the kids of today have very different needs from adults. Children who know about camcorders, computers, and VCRs, children who regularly watch four or five hours of advertising and commercial or cable TV every day, or children who routinely witness or endure violence and maltreatment, must feel challenged to try different ways of solving problems, just the way infants do.

Ask Dr. Susan